Prolonged institutional rearing is associated with atypically large amygdala volume and difficulties in emotion regulation.
Early adversity, for example poor caregiving, can have profound effects on emotional development. Orphanage rearing, even in the best circumstances, lies outside of the bounds of a species-typical caregiving environment. The long-term effects of this early adversity on the neurobiological development associated with socio-emotional behaviors are not well understood. Seventy-eight children, who include those who have experienced orphanage care and a comparison group, were assessed. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to measure volumes of whole brain and limbic structures (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus). Emotion regulation was assessed with an emotional go-nogo paradigm, and anxiety and internalizing behaviors were assessed using the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders, the Child Behavior Checklist, and a structured clinical interview. Late adoption was associated with larger corrected amygdala volumes, poorer emotion regulation, and increased anxiety. Although more than 50% of the children who experienced orphanage rearing met criteria for a psychiatric disorder, with a third having an anxiety disorder, the group differences observed in amygdala volume were not driven by the presence of an anxiety disorder. The findings are consistent with previous reports describing negative effects of prolonged orphanage care on emotional behavior and with animal models that show long-term changes in the amygdala and emotional behavior following early postnatal stress. These changes in limbic circuitry may underlie residual emotional and social problems experienced by children who have been internationally adopted.